Despatches from the Uncanny Valley

The term uncanny is a hard one to pin down. It can be traced back to the 16th century, when it meant mischievous, and it came to be used in Scotland and the north of England in the 18th century to mean associated with the supernatural. It’s more modern applications, however, were inspired by the work of Sigmund Freud.

In his 1919 essay Das Unheimliche, Freud used the German word unheimlich to refer to objects which we project our repressed desires onto. These objects might be everyday things which are rendered strange to us when we see them in this new light. The term was translated as uncanny in English, and came to refer to the sensation of the familiar rendered somehow unfamiliar in a manner that’s difficult to explain or identify. This cognitive dissonance, the simultaneous familiarity and unfamiliarity of something, is at the heart of the effect of the uncanny.

One common example of the uncanny in our everyday lives is in cinematic special effects. In the past, people never had much of a problem with them. They might look obviously fake, so not cause us any anxiety. Or, they might look fake, but still have a sense of tangibility to them, making us feel they’re real. But think about any scenes in modern movies which featured a wild animal. There’s a good chance that a computer-generated model was used instead of a potentially difficult-to-handle animal. And even if it looked exactly like the real thing, there was still something… off about it. It didn’t seem to move quite properly, and it didn’t quite feel solid, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on what exactly was wrong with it. It’s that indeterminacy that really gets under your skin.

Of course, the uncanny can be used deliberately in horror. As I wrote about before, indefinability is naturally frightening and stressful for us, and the uncanny is a perfect example of that. Think of Michael Myers in Halloween. We know he’s a man, and yet his silence, expressionless mask, and stiff movement render him uncanny, adding strange elements of emptiness and artificiality. The uncanny is probably one of the main reasons possession films have the power to terrify. The possessed individual looks and sounds like themselves (well, maybe not sounds), but there’s another self inside their body, which completely messes with our sense of identity, and the integrity of the body and consciousness. Alfred Hitchcock also used the power of the uncanny in his films to great effect. Think of The Birds, and the horrifying thought that these simple animals we see every day and take for granted, could suddenly turn on us for no reason. It’s not just in horror cinema that we can find the uncanny. Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein is a classic example of the uncanny. Entirely human, physically, but still monstrous and repulsive to all who see him:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

Mary Shelly, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), Chapter 5.

It’s no surprise that the uncanny came to be used so much in horror. It’s a very common element in our dreams, and particularly, of course, in nightmares. Think of any nightmare of strange dream you’ve had where you encountered someone you know in real life, but they weren’t quite themselves somehow, or a place you know felt unfamiliar, even though you recognised it.

The uncanny can reside in more mundane places. Scientists have theorised that one of the main reasons people are scared of dolls is because they’re uncanny. Our brains are primed to recognise human faces, and we initially do so when we see a doll, yet this recognition is also immediately denied by the inexpressive artificiality of the doll’s face. Uncanniness may become an increasing problem for us as robots become more lifelike in their appearance. It may be that in the future, we’ll be able to create androids (and gynoids) which can perfectly mimic us, but at the moment we’re left with disturbing things like Nadine below:

Creepy, no? The term the uncanny valley was coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori to refer to our revulsion towards robots which imitate humans. Specifically it refers to the fact that the more lifelike a robot is, the more disturbing it is, until we reach a point where a robot is indistinguishable from a real person, and we’re then ok with it. He represented this on a graph, with the uncanny valley being the area where the line dips below the x axis:

450px-mori_uncanny_valley-svg

By Smurrayinchester – self-made, based on image by Masahiro Mori and Karl MacDorman at http://www.androidscience.com/theuncannyvalley/proceedings2005/uncannyvalley.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2041097

It might seem odd that the graph would plummet so quickly, and then rise so quickly. But think about a robot that looks nothing like a human: nothing strange there as there’s no familiarity. Equally with a robot perfectly imitating a human, there’s no strangeness. We might not even know it’s a robot, and even if we do, we can’t see that. But think of a robot that looks like a person, except there’s… something different about it. Maybe there’s something slightly artificial in its movements, but you can’t quite put your finger on it… Now that’s uncanny. I think we’ll always be fascinated by the uncanny because we’ll never be able to pin it down and classify it.

Now please accept my apologies in advance if you have nightmares tonight of Nadine creeping out from under your bed, wearing a white mask with blank hollow eyes…

 

 

6 thoughts on “Despatches from the Uncanny Valley

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